FAQ for YOU:

Smoke Inhalation

Sadly, Australia has had one of the most horrific bushfire seasons in recorded history. That means that smoke inhalation has become an important health topic. It has affected a lot of people, including one of our key stakeholders at Bradannii (don’t worry, she’s going to be fine!). However, they asked me to write a FAQ to help other people. I was more than happy to oblige and to provide critical information about it.

What is Smoke Inhalation?

Smoke inhalation happens when a living being breathes in harmful smoke particles and gases caused by fire. Breathing these smoke fumes in causes damage to the lungs and airways. Consequently, the body will begin to be depleted of oxygen levels and in turn the body will begin to suffer from acute respiratory distress syndrome and failure. The end result can be and often is deadly.

Smoke inhalation is caused by the burning materials (e.g. the materials that make up the construction of your house and other buildings), as well as the associated chemicals, and gases.

How Dangerous is Smoke Inhalation?

Sadly, statistics produced through multiple studies into smoke inhalation around the world have proven that more than half of fire-related deaths are due to smoke inhalation. If you thought that was an alarming number you’re right. It’s not necessarily the burns that will kill the person (although they obviously can) it’s the damage that it does to the lungs and senses that is deadly.

There are two ways that the human body is deprived of oxygen through smoke inhalation. These are the chemicals and gases such as carbon dioxide. The other way is combustion. Combustion occurs when fire consumes the oxygen around the fire to continue burning whether or not it is increasing the fire spread.

The danger with combustion is that it can use chemicals to injure skin and mucous membranes. In turn, your respiratory tract will swell and your airways will be unable to handle this swelling and collapse.

Symptoms of Smoke Inhalation

There are a number of key symptoms that occur when someone is suffering from smoke inhalation. These are: 

  • Shortness of breath – If your respiratory tract is injured your body may find it more difficult to carry oxygen. You may also find yourself breathing more rapidly in an attempt to compensate for this damage.
  • Cough – mucus membranes can become irritated causing more mucus to be secreted. Furthermore, you are at risk of reflex coughing due to the increase of mucus blocking and tightening your airways.
  • Skin damage – aside from the obvious possibility of burns, skin may become pale and blue due to the lack of oxygen within the system. Some chemicals such as carbon monoxide poisoning will the skin red.
  • Headache – certain chemicals commonly found in smoke can cause headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting – chemicals such as carbon monoxide can cause nausea and vomiting
  • Noisy breathing – this is a sign that your vocal cords are being damaged due to the swelling and tightening of the airways.
  • Eye damage – this includes damage to the corneas as well as redness and irritation
  • Decreased alertness – the victim may become confused, faint, and become generally less alert than what they normally are.
  • Chest pain – this is another symptom that the respiratory tract has been damaged. Chest pain can be a sign that your heart is suffering from a low level of oxygen flow. It is also a sign that your lungs may be damaged.

Please be alert that there is potential for smoke inhalation even if the person suffering from it may be showing no active symptoms. collapse.

How to Treat Smoke Inhalation

Smoke inhalation is a life-threatening situation. Therefore, it is vital that you seek immediate help. 

  • In Australia, call emergency services on 000 for an ambulance.
  • Remain as calm as possible – this includes the rescuer, if any, as well as the victim. The less stress placed on the victim, the more likely they are to overcome their injuries
  • If it is possible and safe to do so, move the person from the smoke-filled environment and into a location where they can regain clean air flow.
  • Constantly check on the victim’s breathing, circulation and airway flow.
  • If required, you should perform CPR while maintaining contact with emergency services who should be on their way

Avoiding Smoke Inhalation

There are a number of important steps that you can take to avoid and prevent smoke inhalation. These include:

  • Installing smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors inside and outside of every sleeping area of the home. The Australian Government has established a number of laws to help guide you through this process.
  • You need to check the detectors on a regular basis (monthly) and replace the batteries when they are low.
  • Ensure that all fire risks are resolved before moving onto a new activity or going to a different place (e.g. kitchen appliances, oven, and stove top are switched off when unattended, space heaters are turned off, candles are blown out)
  • Be prepared – this means having a planned route of escape, should a fire occur at your house or workplace. Those who are prepared are much less likely to suffer the consequences of being stressed because they don’t know what to do

What Happens at Hospital

Once the victim arrives at the hospital, the emergency doctors will require the following information:

  • How long the victim has been exposed for
  • What the source of the smoke inhalation was
  • The levels of smoke that the victim was exposed to

Once they receive this information they will begin administrating tests. These tests may include:

  • Chest x-rays – a chest x-ray can often demonstrate signs of lung damage and infection
  • Bronchoscopy – a bronchoscopy is when a thin, lighted tube, is inserted through the mouth to enable the doctor to view the inside of the airway. A bronchoscopy can also be used to assist in the suctioning of debris and secretion of the airway to assist breathing.
  • Pulse oximetry – a pulse oximetry sees a small device featuring a sensor placed over a body part to ascertain how well that part of the body is receiving oxygen.
  • Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) test – an ABG test is used to measure the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals are in the blood system.
  • Blood tests – A doctor will likely run a complete blood test on the victim. This will help them receive levels such as complete red and white blood cell counts as well as the chemistry and function of other organs that are more likely to be affected by changes in oxygen level.

What to Do After Hospital

The treating specialists will give you a list of objectives to do following a successful release from hospital due to smoke inhalation. These will include:

  • Getting significant amounts of rest to assist the body to replenish its oxygen levels
  • Carrying out a number of breathing exercises as determined by your doctor.
  • Avoiding irritants to the lungs – these may include things such as air conditioners, cold rooms, hot rooms, humidity, dry air, etc.
  • If you’re a smoker you will be strongly advised to quit or to at least stop while you are in recovery.

Outcomes

The outcome for people who have been victim to smoke inhalation varies. Every case is different because of the amount of smoke inhaled and the general health of the person beforehand.

You are likely to be prescribed a combination of inhalers and other medications to assist your breathing and lung recovery. These medicines are not too dissimilar to those used by asthmatics.

Upon release from medical care you are likely to be placed into a post-release treatment plan. This will include trips to doctors and specialists who will help guide you towards the maximum level of improvement your body is capable of.

The aftereffects of smoke inhalation may be temporary or permanent. You are likely to experience shortness of breath, tire more easily, etc. while your lungs and body heal from the injuries.

People who have suffered from scarring may, unfortunately, suffer symptoms such as shortness of breath for the rest of their life.

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